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Working out on an exercise bike is good for you—no matter your fitness level. An exercise bike offers a low-impact cardio workout, and you can pedal as casually or with as much intensity as you like. In recent years, traditional stationary bikes have been eclipsed in many cases by the popularity of indoor cycling bikes, sometimes called studio bikes, which are designed to mimic the experience of riding a road bicycle.
Part of what has upped their appeal is the fact that many studio bikes incorporate built-in connectivity. Those that connect allow you to access on-demand or live exercise classes through the bike’s video screen and transmit real-time data from the bike on performance measures, such as calories burned, speed, resistance, and heart rate, that are displayed on the screen and stored so that you can track your progress. There are nonconnected models, too, which are constructed similarly but without an integrated video interface.
Studio bikes differ from traditional stationary bikes mainly because of the presence of a heavy flywheel, which is used to provide both momentum and resistance, so pedaling feels more realistic. The flywheel is magnetic; when the user adjusts the resistance level, the position of permanent magnets change relative to the flywheel, increasing or decreasing the pedaling effort the user needs to maintain their speed.
We focused on these indoor cycling machines for our latest tests of six exercise bikes—models from Echelon, Finer Form, Peloton, ProForm, Schwinn, and Sole—priced from $500 to $1,900. Here’s what we found in our tests and what to consider when shopping for one of these machines.
How CR Tests Exercise Bikes
All the bikes are put through a series of tests and evaluations to assess their usability. We score each bike on the features it offers, weight capacity, noise, the quality of its user interface, how easily you can adjust the bike’s seat and handlebars for rider comfort, and ease of assembly (for that score, we time how long it takes our testers to put the bike together, from unpacking to starting a ride). We also rate the bike’s parts, its labor warranty, and the length of its frame.
Overall, there isn’t a bad bike in the bunch. Each receives an Overall Score of Very Good or Excellent, with four of the six scoring well enough to earn our recommendation.
Thanks to the whisper-quiet resistance provided by the magnets, each bike earns a score of Excellent for noise. “The loudest sound in the lab during the tests was the heavy breathing of the rider,” says Bernie Deitrick, who oversees exercise bike testing at CR. And all earn a score of Excellent for weight capacity because the maximum rider weight they can support is at least 250 pounds. (For specifics, see our ratings.)
Assembly wasn’t difficult, but it did require some strength and manual dexterity. Assembly time ranged from 27 to 43 minutes for the models that arrived in boxes. The one exception was the Peloton, which took only 8 minutes to set up. (Typically with the Peloton, the delivery team assembles the device—we did it ourselves, thanks to pandemic precautions.)
We noticed more variation in the bikes’ features. The features we assess are the ones that our experts consider useful in an exercise bike, including the type of pedals; placement of handlebars, water bottle, and dumbbell holders; the ability to operate the bike without needing to plug it in; and more. For example, some bikes must be plugged in to operate the digital display but can still be used without power, thanks to manual resistance controls. Others must be plugged in to adjust resistance.
Adjustability is another area in which the bikes’ scores are mixed. For several of the bikes, seat height, horizontal seat position, and handlebar height can be adjusted only in discrete increments. That means, for example, that in one position, the seat height may be slightly too low for you, but positioning it one increment higher could make it slightly too high. Our testers say it’s better for a bike to give you the ability to make fine adjustments so that you can get your seat into exactly the right position.
All the bikes in our test earn a Very Good or Excellent rating for their interface, even the nonconnected models (these all have some kind of digital display that shows data such as speed, workout time, heart rate, and an estimate of calories burned). One key factor that dings a bike’s interface score: whether the level of resistance is included in the digital display. For bikes whose resistance is controlled by a knob, unless you can see in the display readout the exact resistance level you’re on, it’s impossible to replicate a workout, which may prove to be frustrating if you’re trying to track your progress over time, Deitrick says.
Connected or Nonconnected Bike: The Best Choice for You
In our tests, an equal number of connected and nonconnected bikes earned our recommendation, which means you have plenty of great options. So which type of bike is best for you?
One major factor is cost. The connected bikes in our tests were more expensive, costing between $1,500 and $1,900, compared with $500 to $1,000 for the nonconnected bikes.
Connected bikes come with the ability to access indoor cycling apps right from the bike’s display screen, which provide both on-demand and live classes. These might show you an instructor at the front of a virtual classroom or a video of a bike ride through a scenic area (or even a custom ride through your neighborhood). To access them, though, you’ll need to sign up for a monthly subscription service, which will add to the cost.
If you’d rather turn on tunes, Netflix, or a podcast while you work out than have an in-class experience, the good news is that you can opt for a less expensive, nonconnected bike without sacrificing performance or comfort. If you want the classes but don’t want to spend the money on a connected bike, you can use a workout app on your phone or tablet to replicate that experience to some extent on a conventional, nonconnected exercise bike. You’ll still need to pay for a subscription, but it gives you flexibility in the service you use. Prices vary, but it will cost less than the service that comes standard with a connected bike. One downside of this kind of setup is that the data from your workout will not feed into the app as they would using a connected bike’s display, Deitrick says.
For more on the options and features of these bikes, check our exercise bike buying guide. CR members can read on for details about the bikes we tested, or jump right to our full ratings and reviews of exercise bikes.
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